Icon A5 Aircraft Test Flight: Flying Into What the Future of Mobility Should Be
An easy-to-fly combination of jet-ski and aircraft, Icon Aircraft’s amphibious airplane breaks new transportation ground.
We soar above the new Tappan Zee Bridge spanning the Hudson River just north of Manhattan, in no particular hurry as the dramatic, canted towers drift below us. We’re flying—not at transonic speeds like the jets heading into New York's airports, but at a modest 75 mph in the two-seat amphibious airplane known as the Icon A5. Most of the cars on the bridge are going faster than we are, which is fine. My arm sits comfortably on the open window, some of the wind bleeding off the slipstream to cool us off. Down there, it’s a frantic Wednesday commute. Up here, it’s easy like Sunday morning.
My co-pilot, Icon regional sales director Noah Collins, a former U.S. Navy pilot who spent years slamming E-2 Hawkeyes onto bucking aircraft carrier decks, decides he wants me to put us down nice and gently on the Hudson River. I’ve been at the controls for about 15 minutes, effortlessly steering us with just two or three fingers on the seemingly-minuscule control stick. Though not formally a pilot, I do have some flight training, as well as experience taking the controls of many small aircraft, so this isn't alien territory. But this is by far the easiest, lowest-stress flying I’ve ever done. (he airplane just seems to want to hang there in the sky, doing your bidding.
That said, I’ve never done a water landing before.
Still, I’m game. I throttle down the 100-horsepower Rotax 912 engine—a popular choice for small aircraft, able to run on conventional automotive fuel—set the flaps to full, make sure the landing gear is up, and aim for the water’s surface. From 1,000 feet, it seemed smooth as glass, but as we drop, the waves start to take shape and my heartbeat accelerates. The peaks and troughs scroll beneath us faster and faster as we descend. I have all the room in the world, like I’m landing on a huge, flat table, but it still feels like I’m threading the needle between wave crests. But keeping the nose up—a prominent angle-of-attack indicator on the instrument panel helps you make sure you’re not going to stall—and letting the aircraft settle on its own does the trick; suddenly, we’re on the surface, a gentle spray kicking up around us.
I steer around by throttling the three-bladed prop, sitting just a few feet behind us. The A5 now feels like a huge jet-ski with wings. If this were Havasu or Powell, I’d dive in and splash around. But it’s the Hudson, so after I’m finished marveling at the fact that I just landed an airplane on a river, I simply throw the throttle forward and within a few feet, we’re flying again.
This sort of freewheeling experience is precisely what former Air Force F-16 pilot and Icon founder Kirk Hawkins envisioned when he launched the A5 just a bit more than a decade ago. He created it specifically in response to the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2004 creation of a new category of light-sport aircraft (LSA). The goal of that effort was to lower the barriers to entry for aviation by introducing airplanes that could be flown with less training, enabling pilots to get their certifications faster and at a lower cost. There are limitations to what you can do—just one other passenger, no flight in inclement weather or at night, et cetera—but you can still enjoy the thrill of flight and the reach it grants you more easily than ever before.
The A5 certainly meets the category’s qualifications, but it does more than merely capitalize on new FAA rules. In its own way, it billboards what modern mobility should be—jumping in your airplane and flying off to your friend’s lake house 100 miles away on a Sunday afternoon, or scooting over the bay to get to work, without all the hassles of traffic and routing of land- and water-based travel. To do this, it take something outrageously complex and challenging and makes it, frankly, easy. You can slap a pat little label on the A5 if you want, call it a disruptor, or the Tesla of aviation, or the Honda Civic of aviation, or the iPhone of aviation—but none of those fully do justice to what this aircraft achieves.
That’s the broader rub with aviation. Its barriers to entry go far beyond simply owning an airplane. In fact, that’s the easiest part. There are plenty of models in the Icon’s price range that can carry two additional people, and even fly quite a bit faster. Or you could go out right now and pick up any of thousands of small airplanes built in the last 70 years for as little as $20,000, still in fine, flyable shape. But few aircraft have the strength and weight advantages of full carbon fiber construction, or the versatility of amphibious landing capability. (Thanks to trailering and launching at boat ramps, you can fly this pup for decades without once landing at a proper airport, except for maintenance and inspections.)
Even more, none of those aircraft have nearly the same ease-of-use in terms of flyability—nor do they have your back quite as well as the A5. Its sublimely-fine-tuned aerodynamics are uniquely engineered to minimize your risk of stalling or entering a potentially fatal spin. The latter is a particularly noteworthy achievement, as the A5 is the first aircraft certified by the FAA as spin-resistant. Credit for this goes to the cleverly designed wing that ensures the airplane’s controls remain effective even if parts of the wing have lost lift, such as during certain low-speed turning maneuvers. Since spins cause a disproportionate number of fatal crashes, that’s huge.
The A5 has been in development for more than a decade, and it has weathered its share of turbulence—several fatal, high-profile accidents, funding issues, manufacturing challenges, price increases that have bumped the price from an initial $189,000 to $389,000, and more. (Anyone contemplating launching an air-taxi company with a vertical lift electric airplane would be wise to note the challenges of launching even a fairly conventional airplane.) But the company has persisted and appears to be on even footing now, having opened a new factory in Tijuana that focuses explicitly on cranking out the carbon fiber wings and fuselage—a time-consuming, tricky process.
That $389K price tag is a big investment, but on par with what thousands throw down every year for a decent supercar—and at the end of the day, those are mere sound and fury compared to what an airplane, even an LSA, can do for you. Still, to ease that particular sting, Icon recently launched a fractional ownership program, common in aviation, that lets you buy quarter- or half-ownership, which for most people will provide more than enough flying days per year.
Once back in the air, Collins demonstrates the stall resistance of the airplane—when you hear the buzzer, just nose it down and recover—and its maneuverability, executing tightly-banked turns that feel as routine and lazy as prowling around the mall parking lot looking for a spot. But while it may seem that “easy” was the goal, it was actually safety—benign flight characteristics, resistance to stalls and spins, and easy maneuverability at low speed all serve the master of keeping the occupants in one piece. But even when design, skill, and luck run out, you have an emergency option: yank the lever to deploy a ballistic recovery parachute, and the whole airplane floats gently to the ground (or water).
We level off and head back to Westchester County Airport, where we make a JetBlue A320 cool its jets while we toddle by at 50 knots. The landing is a graceful glide in, followed by a quick parking job at the business-aviation facility. Is flying an A5 as easy as jumping in a Miata and barreling up and down the coast for a few hours? Not even close. It’s a proper airplane that requires training, certification, and upkeep of your license and skills. You have to respect the discipline, and know your limits. But the pleasure and satisfaction of flight, especially in something as seemingly effortless as the A5, is its own reward, and a hint of what life could be like if all the pain of travel was whisked away in a flash. In the future, mobility will likely be automatic and even easier than flying the A5...but for now, this isn't a bad way to get around.
Icon A5 - Specs
Range: 427 nautical miles
Max takeoff weight: 1,510 lbs
Max Speed (level flight, full power): 109 mph
Takeoff/Landing Distance (land): 1,130 feet/1,590 feet
Takeoff/Landing Distance (water): 1,470 feet/2,140 feet
Engine: Rotax 912 four-cylinder, 100 horsepower, 94 pound-feet
Wingspan: 34.8 feet
Length: 23 feet
Height: 8.1 feet